The threshold of the visible, where frail light ebbs away into darkness, is the preferred territory of the Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (b. 1952), whose work is the subject of a commercial exhibition of around 30 images currently on display at the Magnum Print Room. His pictures explore spaces and surfaces clogged with visual noise: interiors filled with cigarette smoke; grimy windows; murky water; cityscapes where the weak glow of dawn sunshine transforms human bodies into faceless silhouettes. In a 2008 photograph of a Moscow street taken through a windscreen, patches of snow rest on the glass like fallen clouds; in the road beyond, the dark figures that loiter among other cars, and the soaring, boxlike buildings that dwarf everything else in the scene, generate an atmosphere of quiet menace. Ordinary things – snow, people, cars – remain recognisable and highly concrete at the same time as their arrangement within the frame creates odd juxtapositions and distortions of scale. Pinkhassov is often attracted to abstract patterns, such as the tangle of arms, hands and torsos to be found in a 1995 photograph taken in Rajastan. But in his most absorbing images, like the Moscow street scene, the principal effect is not abstraction but defamiliarisation: the making strange of what has come to seem commonplace.
In recent decades, the prestigious Magnum agency to which Pinkhassov belongs has tended to define itself less as an outlet for traditional news photojournalism and more as a centre of excellence for collectible, aesthetically-sophisticated documentary photography – work often produced in the course of long-term personal projects which reflect members’ particular interests or distinctive visual style. In the present exhibition, compositions which exploit the weirdly beautiful effects of shadow and artificial light in hotels, shops and subways are displayed alongside photographs of the anti-government demonstrations which took place in Kiev earlier this year. Presented with minimal contextual information, these different types of images have been grouped together as evidence of the photographer’s creative vision. The emphasis here is not on the thing or event seen but on the virtuosic seeing eye.
Would it matter if documentary photography comes to be thought of, and valued, primarily as a mode of personal expression? Arguments to the effect that its ethical bite is likely to atrophy as a result of this development demand serious consideration. Yet in a world where many of the events encountered by photographers are stage-managed to make the interests of the powerful seem coherent and persuasive, it is useful to be reminded of how surreal and complicated the world can look. Photography like Pinkhassov’s trains us to resist easy acceptance of the (seemingly) transparent image, and to recognise that a subjective brain lurks behind every camera.
Tom Balfe is a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld.
Gueorgui Pinkhassov is at the Magnum Print Room until the 31st July 2014.